Sampling Technology
Nearly every digital piano uses sampling technology. This involves manufacturers recording many short audio samples of an instrument, say, a grand piano, and assigning those audio samples onto the keys. This means that, whenever you press a key on the digital piano, the instrument triggers a recording of a real piano. The best sampling tech involves the recording of many audio samples: the more, the better, since that creates a more accurate instrument simulation. Typically, the sound produced by one key is created by three different piano samples. One of these is for a soft press, one for a medium, and one for a hard one. In short, better sampling technology makes a more realistic sound that is closer to the real instrument.
Heavy Weighted Keys
Technically, there are two types of keys: non-weighted and heavy weighted. As you can tell by the name, heavy weighted keys feel heavy under your fingers, while non-weighted are light to play. In an acoustic piano, the keys are heavy because they are made of solid wood attached to hammers. In order to control the volume dynamic, it is crucial that a pianist has access to heavy weighted keys. To create a more authentic, albeit more expensive, experience, many digital pianos are equipped with heavy weighted keys. Light weighted keys are better suited to other purposes, such as simulating an organ.
Full Size Keys
The standard size of a digital piano key is quite similar to the real thing. This is known as full size. There are other smaller sizes, but there are no universal standards among these miniature models. Nonetheless, professionals do sometimes use these mini keys because they have other advantages, such as portability and the fact that they take up less space.
88 Keys
A standard piano has a length of 88 keys, including both black and white keys. Still, there are other variations, including 76 keys, 61 keys, 49 keys, etc. For a complete experience, 88 keys is the ideal length, but sometimes smaller sizes are appropriate. For instance, if space or money is short, a musician may opt for a smaller size. If you decide to purchase a piano with less than 88 keys, you will likely only miss out on the lowest and highest octaves. These are not always necessary (debatable), especially if you are concerned about space.
Ivory Keytops
Though most digital piano keys are entirely constructed out of plastic, higher end models have ivory keytops. In a real piano, the keytops are made of ivory, as this material feels nice, prevents finger slipping, absorbs sweat, and is less oily. There are, of course, some ethical issues that arise from the fact that ivory is made from the tusks of elephants and the teeth of animals such as walruses and narwhals. This is certainly worth considering when making a purchase.
Wooden Keys
Just like an acoustic piano, many higher end digital pianos come with wooden keys. Wood is more expensive than plastic, but it increases playing action and creates a weighted feel that is impossible for plastic to achieve.
Sound System
Most digital pianos are equipped with a built-in sound system. Essentially, an amplifier and speaker is mounted inside of the digital piano. The quality depends on the amount of wattage produced, the size, number, and quality of the speaker cones, etc. A good sound system is especially necessary if you want to play at high volumes, but it is also a factor at moderate to soft volume. Of course, it’s good to note that, if you plan on exclusively using headphones with your digital piano, then the sound system is irrelevant.
Cabinet Digital Piano
There are two types of digital pianos: the portal range, in which the body is a combination of plastic and metal, and a cabinet piano, in which the body is made entirely of wood. Because the wood is so dense, cabinet pianos are much heavier. Nonetheless, the wood serves a purpose, the foremost of which is to enhance the sound system. Basically, if we put a speaker cone inside a wooden box instead of a plastic or paper box, we get a more natural sound with less reflections. Furthermore, a heavy piano won’t move around while being played. It is more like a solid table, as opposed to plastic, which can be flimsy.
DSP, or digital sound processors, are electronic circuits that create sound effects. All digital pianos come with a built-in DSP, and the most common of these creates a reverb or echoing sound. Without DSP, a digital piano will sound ‘dry’ and unnatural, so manufacturers use DSP to make their digital pianos sound more like a real grand piano that you’d find in a theater.
For a digital piano, a different tone corresponds to a different instrument. There are ‘bread and butter sounds,’ like acoustic piano, electric piano, strings, organ, and bells, different variations on these instruments, and some multi-function digital pianos have up to thousands of different tones. For instance, the Yamaha CVP series has countless instruments to choose from, and most synthesizers have millions of tones that we can play with. Therefore, if you only need your digital piano to play piano sounds, then you won’t need to buy a multi-function model because they are significantly more expensive.
Brilliance is another word for treble, and increasing it makes the piano sound brighter and ‘clearer,’ as opposed to mellow or darker. What you want depends largely on player preference. For instance, Yamaha pianos generally sound brighter, whereas Kawai pianos usually have a mellower sound. Which to choose is up to you, though most people find a mellower sound more natural.
Polyphony refers to the number of notes that you can simultaneously play on the piano. Early digital pianos could only play 16 notes at a time, in which case the 17th note would ‘cut away’ the 1st note. Most of today’s pianos have at least 128 polyphony, which is more than enough for a solo pianist. This brings us to an important point: if you are shopping for a digital piano, you’re better off entirely ignoring polyphony.
This device rhythmically ticks to help the pianist practice keeping time. Most digital pianos come equipped with a basic metronome, and higher end models will enable you to set the exact tempo of the metronome. Still, we find that using an app on your smartphone will serve as a better metronome anyways.
This function creates a band that will accompany you as you play the piano. This backing band generally includes a drummer, a bassist, and accompanying chords on different instruments. This feature if excellent if you want to play in a band but can’t because you don’t have others to play with. As the name suggests, the band is automatic. You can simply set the initial temple and play as normal on the piano for the auto-accompaniment to do its job detecting your chords and simulate a band for you.
Another specification of a digital piano, this feature refers to the piano’s ability to play drum backing tracks. They usually come with a few styles, such as ballad, funk, rock, Latin, etc. These rhythm functions can help a student to keep time and train them to intuitively understand the order of the beats.
Touch Sensitivity
This function is the most misleading of them all. Touch sensitivity doesn’t refer to any mechanical difference, meaning it will not change the way the keys physically feel. Instead, touch sensitivity refers to a built-in software with sampling technology that changes the piano’s sound based on how gently or forcefully you press the keys. For example, if you tend to press down hard on the keys, you can select “hard mode.” This will enable the software to automatically lower the volume if you hit the keys too hard. On the other hand, a soft player can select “soft mode” for the opposite effect.
MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, is another feature that is commonly misunderstood. Midi is a mode of communication, just like a USB port. You can plug a mouse to a PC through a USB port if you want the mouse to communicate with the PC, or you can plug many other devices in through that same port. Similarly, a computer’s LCD monitor uses an HDMI port, a home phone uses RJ45, and most audio players use an RCA audio jack. MIDI is just like this—you can hook up a MIDI device to a device with a MIDI port. For instance, you can connect a digital piano to a computer with a MIDI input then use software on that computer to control the digital piano. This allows you to change sequencing or use pro-audio software.
USB to Host
In recent years, many manufacturers have done away with MIDI ports and opted instead for standard USB ports. They are more cost effective and their use is more widespread, so this is a natural change. Nonetheless, USB cannot entirely replace MIDI, as higher end models will always come with MIDI ports in addition to USB ports.
USB to Device
A USB to device port means that you can plug a thumb drive or other USB device into your digital piano. Any keyboard with this function can record and save audio or MIDI files onto that external storage device.
The Three Pedals
A typical acoustic piano has three pedals: the soft pedal, the sostenuto pedal, and the sustain pedal. The most important of these is the sustain pedal because it helps us to sustain notes without having to hold them down with our fingers. This power to sustain is especially pertinent for ballads. The middle pedal, known as the sostenuto pedal, assists the pianist in sustaining certain notes while leaving others unaffected. However, the middle pedal on many acoustic pianos functions as a mute pedal that can quiet the sounds from the piano so that pianists don’t disturb their neighbors. The last of the pedals, the soft pedal, usually moves the hammers closer to the strings, or, in some models, it positions the hammers to hit less strings and create a less dense sound. Practically speaking, a digital piano can easily simulate the last two pedals using digital functions, and, therefore, most digital pianos come equipped with a sole sustain pedal. Nonetheless, some manufacturers do include three pedals on their digital pianos so that they are better at simulating a real piano.
In music terms, transposing is the process of moving notes either up or down in pitch. Essentially, it is changing to a different key. For instance, with a karaoke machine, you can click +1, +2, -1, or -2. This is transposing, and it useful for musicians who hear in relative pitch and have trouble playing in different keys. By transposing, we can easily and immediately play in any key that we so desire. All digital pianos have a transpose function, and the only difference is where one can find it on the keyboard.
Aux in
Aux is an abbreviation of auxiliary, which means supplementary or additional. When a digital piano has an Aux in feature, then we can plug any outside device into it. For example, you could connect your iPhone’s audio cable into a digital piano’s aux jack to play music from YouTube and listen to it through the digital piano’s speakers. Essentially, it transforms the digital piano into digital speakers.
Recording Tracks
This feature enables pianist to record themselves playing directly on the piano. Most digital pianos can record two tracks, meaning that, if you want to record a third, then it will overwrite the first. Of course, if you want to record a lot of songs, then you can connect your piano to your PC through MIDI. This will let you record and edit as many songs as you’d like.
As the name implies, this feature lets you layer sounds. For instance, you can layer piano and strings together, meaning that, when you press a key, you’ll get both a piano and strings sound. Layering is quite useful if you find that one sound alone is boring. For a professional, layering is incredibly important. To create a rich sound of strings, for instance, we may need to layer many different string samples all together.
Half Pedal
A digital piano with half pedal allows a pianist to press the sustain pedal down halfway, thus enabling us to sustain a range of notes. For example, we may dampen the higher registers while sustaining the lower ones. This effect is subtle, yet it can be a welcome addition for classical pianists.
The Clavinova has become a household name. This product line started as a flagship cabinet piano by Yamaha, but, nowadays, it refers to any Yamaha high-end cabinet piano.